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Capitol Insider: Stitt Picks Businessman To Lead DHS

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services’ Human Services Center in Oklahoma City.
Brent Fuchs
Journal Record

Gov. Stitt has decided to replace the head of the Dept. of Human Services, one of Oklahoma's largest state agencies, with Justin Brown, the CEO of a company that owns assisted living facilities in Oklahoma and neighboring states. In this episode, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss this and more. 



Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, the legislative session ended before Memorial Day. Governor Stitt wasted little time reviewing legislation signing and vetoing. Now that the dust has settled on the session let's look at the outcome. What are the major accomplishments of this year's legislature?


Ashley: Well I think one of the major accomplishments will be their budget for fiscal year 2020. On one hand it was relatively easy. They had growth revenue going into the budget process, and so it was easy to give agencies additional funding. They did that primarily by funding a state employee pay raise and by funding a teacher's pay raise, really across the board in both cases. They also were able to put some additional money into particular agencies. Education was a big winner in that respect. I think Republicans are very happy with what they did. Democrats, however, for their part, feel that more could have been done in a number of different ways. 


Pryor: What significant issues were left unaddressed or under-addressed?


Ashley: I think one of those will definitely be criminal justice reform. Some legislation was passed such as the retroactivity of State Question 780, which reduced certain drug crimes and minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. But there were other efforts, like bail reform, that simply did not move forward. There's still a need in corrections in general for additional funding. We saw their employees get a pay raise as well, but Director Joe Allbaugh has been talking about the need for additional space. You know most of our prisons are not prisons they were other facilities that were converted into prisons, and he has been asking for the last two years for funding for two additional prisons. And, quite honestly, that request just sort of evaporated when the legislative session began. 


Pryor: What stands out about Governor Stitt's 16 vetoes?


Ashley: There were a number of things, I think, that that stood out to me in his vetoes. First of all the Governor is not interested in creating new bodies that he feels are unnecessary, task forces or commissions. He vetoed several pieces of legislation in that area saying that he believed that his cabinet secretaries and state agencies could work together to address the problems that were going to be considered by these task forces and commissions. 


Pryor: The Governor has appointed Justin Brown to replace Ed Lake as director of the Department of Human Services DHS. What does Brown bring to the job that previous DHS directors did not?


Ashley: Well, I think he brings private sector business experience to the agency. We're used to individuals at the Department of Human Services who have some sort of government background running the agency. Mr. Brown has experience in assisted living facilities, so he has had contact with government regulation, but largely his work has been in the private sector, in private management. 


Pryor: How does that translate to the work DHS does?


Ashley: DHS is one of the largest state agencies, so he will be dealing with an employee force that's nearly 20 times larger than anything which he has dealt with. But it also has one of the largest budgets, and that has been a key focus of his investing in and overseeing the operation of seven assisted living centers in three different states. In this case, however, he will be dealing with a lot of different areas in the Department of Human Services. There's child welfare services, there's adult protective services, there's developmental disability services. There are a lot of different functions under that one big umbrella, so he's going to have his fingers and a lot of different pies. 


Pryor :What does Brown's appointment as DHS director tell us about the direction Governor Stitt is taking the state?


Ashley: I think it's consistent with what Governor Stitt has talked about even during the campaign, and that is the idea of bringing business experience into the  government arena. 


Pryor: There are at least three other big personnel decisions to be made. What else do you see coming?


Ashley: That is one of the most interesting questions circulating around the capitol right now who will be the director of the Department of Corrections the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. 


Pryor: So he could keep those leaders in place or go in a different direction. 


Ashley: He very well could keep those leaders in place. 


Pryor: Thanks Shawn. 


Ashley: You're very welcome. 


Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net, on Apple podcasts and Spotify. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor. 

Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
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